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A Popular History of France from the Earliest Time

Not less ancient than the monarchy


Whilst

all the constituted bodies of the third estate, municipalities, corporations, commissions of provincial assemblies, were overwhelming the king with their addresses in favor of the people's rights, the Prince of Conti, whose character always bore him into reaction against the current of public opinion, had put himself at the head of the opposition of the courtiers. Already, at one of the committees of the Assembly of notables, he had addressed Monsieur, the most favorable of all the princes to the liberal movement. "The very existence of the monarchy is threatened," he said, "its annihilation is desired, and we are close upon that fatal moment. It is impossible that the king should not at last open his eyes, and that the princes his brothers should not co-operate with him; be pleased, therefore, to represent to the king how important it is for the stability of his throne, for the laws, and for good order, that the new systems be forever put away, and that the constitution and ancient forms be maintained in their integrity." Louis XVI. having shown some ill-humor at the Prince of Conti's remarks, the latter sent him a letter signed by all the princes of the royal family except Monsieur and the Duke of Orleans. The perils with which the state was threatened were evident and even greater than the prince's letter made out; the remedies they indicated were as insufficient in substance as they were contemptuous in form. "Let the third estate," they said, cease to attack the rights
of the two upper orders, rights which, not less ancient than the monarchy, ought to be as unalterable as the constitution; but let it confine itself to asking for diminution of the imposts with which it may be surcharged; then the two upper orders might, in the generosity of their feelings, give up prerogatives which have pecuniary interests for their object." . . . Whilst demanding on the part of the third estate this modest attitude, the princes let fall threatening expressions, the use of which had been a lost practice to the royal house since the days of the Fronde. "In a kingdom in which for so long a time there have been no civil dissensions, the word schism cannot be uttered without regret," they said; "such an event, however, would have to be expected if the rights of the two upper orders suffered any alteration, and what confidence would not be felt in the mind of the people in protests which tended to release them from payment of imposts agreed upon in the states?"

Thirty dukes and peers had beforehand proposed to the king the renunciation of all their pecuniary privileges, assuring him that the whole French noblesse would follow the example if they were consulted. Passions were too violently excited, and the disorder of ideas was too general to admit of the proper sense being given to this generous and fruitless proceeding. The third estate looked upon it as a manoeuvre against double representation; the mass of the two orders protested against the forced liberality which it was attempted to thrust upon them. People made merry over the signataries. "Have you read the letter of the dupes and peers?" they said.

The Assembly of notables had broken up on the 12th of December; the convocation of the States-general was at hand, and the government of King Louis XVI. still fluctuated undecidedly between the various parties which were so violently disputing together over public opinion left to itself. The dismay of wise men went on increasing, they were already conscious of the fruitlessness of their attempts to direct those popular passions of which they had, but lately been reckoning, upon availing themselves in order to attain an end as laudable as it was moderate. One of the most virtuous as well as the most enlightened and the most courageous, M. Malouet, has related in his _Memoires_ the conversations he held at this very juncture with the ministers, M. Necker and M. de Montmorin especially. It is worth while to give the complete summary, as sensible as it is firm, a truthful echo of the thoughts in the minds of the cream of the men who had ardently desired reforms, and who attempted in vain to rein up the revolution in that fatal course which was to cost the lives of many amongst them, and the happiness and peace of nearly all.


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